Fun things to see and do in Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town South Africa
Cape Town South Africa

I’m going to assume that going on a safari, the historic Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was held, and the prominent landmark known as Table Mountain are already on your list of things to see and do in South Africa, so I’ll invite you to read my previous blog posts on those sites before or after you read this one.

In the meantime, here’s a list of my other itinerary suggestions.

Explore the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront

Named after Queen Victoria of England and her second son Prince Alfred, the V&A Waterfront is a cultural mecca that attracts millions of tourists annually. It is a vibrant seaside venue with activities that run the gamut from day to nighttime activities.

Scenic views from the Waterfront

Think jovial bartenders and pubs teaming with happy customers; restaurants offering a wide variety of menu items; retail shops; cinemas; and more than 20 historical landmarks.

Me, happy in Nobel Square. It’s a site dedicated to South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

It’s also South Africa’s oldest working harbor, which makes it easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the days when it was a major trading port.

Views in Cape Town

Take a guided walking tour during the day to learn how the Dutch, British and African cultures converged to create this unique city. Then return after dark to enjoy the nightly entertainment and feast on dishes made by chefs from all over the world.

Tip: I ate at Karibu Restaurant because I wanted to sample traditional South African cuisine. Oxtail was my must-have entrée. (You can tell me what cuisines you decided on in the comments section). However, no matter where you dine, you MUST try the Malva Pudding. It was my favorite South African dessert! It’s sinfully sweet, with a spongy caramelized texture.

One version of the Malva pudding, South African dessert

There’s a hint of apricot jam in the flavor, and it is usually served piping hot with vanilla ice-cream on the side.

Visit Hout Bay and Seal Island

Take a scenic drive along the Atlantic Ocean to Hout Bay, the site of a former fishing community that has been transformed into a chic residential community.  From there, you can take a ½ hour cruise to Seal Island where you’ll see more than 60,000 mammals of varying sizes and shades of brown jockeying for position along the jagged rocks.

Seal Island, Hout Bay

There’s no place to disembark, but you can watch from the boat as the Cape fur seals stretch, arch, slide and use their flippers to scratch themselves while you take pictures. Expect unusual noises! They squall and squabble like competitive siblings fighting over a stick of candy. If the timing is right, you might even witness a National Geographic type circle-of-life encounter. I was told great white sharks that lurk in the area enjoy seals for dinner, so flying attacks that display impressive Jaws-like moments are not that uncommon. I didn’t see any on my trip though.

Boats in Hout Bay, South Africa

Tip: Pray that your boat captain stays upwind of the island because all that brown loveliness gives off a distinct odor.

Pretend you’re 007 on Chapman’s Peak Drive

Chpamans Peak Drive, South Africa

Words aren’t really enough to describe the sheer beauty of Chapman’s Peak Drive, arguably the most scenic 5 ½ miles you’ll ever come across in one consecutive ride. Built in the early 20th century on top of a layer of granite, Chappies (as it is lovingly referred to by locals) slithers through the side of a magnificent mountain in the Cape Peninsula.

Chapman Peak

The 200-meter cliff drop on one side of the vehicle contrasted with the 200-meter rise into the hills on the other gives you a sense of awe, and triggers incontrollable goosebumps at every hair bend turn.  With stunning coastal vistas at almost all of its 114 bends, you must have your camera ready to capture the spectacular scenery along the way.

If you’re renting a car, be sure to plot your trip carefully ahead of time and mark the allowed stops. That way, you can focus on the scenery instead of your map while cruising. Believe me, James Bond won’t have anything on you!

Here’s an interesting side note for car buffs. I wasn’t surprised to hear Chapmans’ Peak was the location of luxury, high-performance car commercials for brands like Mercedes Benz, and that it inspired one cheeky retort ad from BMW called “Beat the Bends”.  Guess what? That ad was pulled off the air after only one week because it violated South Africa’s competitive advertising laws.  If you’re curious to learn more, you can find a history of that little rivalry here.

The BMW commercial that’s still talked about in advertising circles is below.

(In case you are wondering, the label attributed by this YouTube author, which is a play on the 114 bends in the road and the similar sounding word Benz,  should have said Beat The Bends.).

Tips:

  1. Go on a clear day, because the road is closed to traffic during severe weather conditions. Also note that the toll for driving the route is around SAR31 per vehicle.
  2. If you happen to be in South Africa on the second Sunday in March, be aware that it will be the scene of the annual Cape Town Cycle Tour that averages more than 34,000 cyclists. It might also be wise to avoid it near the middle of April when the Two Oceans Marathon is in full swing.
  3. On the way, stop at Camps Bay, where you’re likely to see dolphins at play.
  4. Beaches that you’ll pass usually have a flag system. Black means the visibility isn’t clear, white means there are sharks in the water, and green means it’s safe to swim.
  5. If you’re a stickler for water quality, check to see that the beach you decide on is designated as a Blue Flag beach. That accreditation is a globally recognized one only given to stretches of shoreline that meet the highest standards of environmental management, safety, services and guest amenities.

Take day trip to see Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope

View from LIghthouse at Cape Point, South Africa

You can’t visit Cape Town and not go to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope – a place that is often erroneously touted as the southernmost tip of the Peninsula. At Cape Point, which is just about 60 kilometers from the city, you will see a large variety of birds and many species of reptiles and small mammals. You can also hike to superb lookout points to enjoy panoramic views of beaches and rolling hills, and at the end of your strenuous cardio workout, a historic lighthouse awaits.

Lighthouse at Cape Point, South Africa
Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope, the second of the two most famous landmarks within the Table Mountain National Park used to be a stopping point for trading ships. Today, it attracts tourists instead of sailors who yearn for that obligatory vacation snapshot in front of the world-renown sign you see in all South African holiday albums. You can snap your pic before the English or Afrikaans sign.

Bolder Beach, South Africa

On your way back, stop at Boulder Beach near the naval base of Simon’s Town to see the Jackass Penguin Colony. Warning: Don’t be tempted to feed them.

Penguin Colony

Local folklore has it that the Simon’s Town was named after a man who used to share his pints with soldiers from the Royal Navy.  Surprise, surprise: he reportedly died of liver failure.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, South Africa

Also, devote some time to roam Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, home to at least 3,500 species of South African flora and fauna.

Garden bench at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Raise a glass in the Winelands

According to 2016 estimates, South Africa ranked eighth in the world in wine production, and the country produces about one billion liters annually. Naturally, I recommend setting aside a day to visit the Winelands. Even though I’m not a wine aficionado, I enjoyed it!

Stellenbosch, South Africa

The town of Stellenbosch, which is about an hour outside of Cape Town, sits at the center of the oldest wine routes in the country. It’s a picturesque little village bordered by the dramatic outline of the Hottentots Holland Mountains on one side, and Dutch-style architecture homes and oak-lined streets on the other.

Our tour guide, Terrence, told us that investment policies allowed many persons to benefit from grants to develop their own vineyards and some have gone on to produce award-winning wines.

Chamonix Cellar

I visited Nelson Creek Estate, Anura Vneyards, Asara and Chamomix Cellar for wine and cheese tastings. 

After the libations, take time for a photo stop at Groot Drakenstein prison, the historic place where Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. If you’re not rushed, also go for a brief stroll through the towns of Paarl and Franschhoek.

Random wine barrel trivia: The life of an oak barrel is cyclical.  When used to store wine, the barrels last about 3-4 years. After that, they can be used to store whiskey and brandy, but upon retirement, they are used to make furniture and flower pots.

Groot Drakenstein prison, South Africa

Go on a Safari!

Shop at Greenmarket Square

If you’re hoping to take home neat souvenirs, get your haggling game(i.e. negotiation skills) on point and go check out Greenmarket Square in the heart of Cape Town where vendors peddle anything from wooden yo-yos to colorful fabrics, wall art, baskets, bowls, beaded jewelry and sculptures.

Tip: The price on the tag is always negotiable.

Drive by one of the townships to see how the other half lives

We met a Jamaican-born missionary living in South Africa, and she took us into Khayelitsha, the most populated and fastest growing township in South Africa. Established as part of the Group Areas Act in the days of apartheid, the living conditions are painful to observe.

Millions live in leaning and drafty shacks, and sanitary conveniences like toilets and standpipes that gush sporadic water provide only a fraction of what is needed to support the community. It’s a vivid reminder that all that glitters is not gold, and a standing testament to the ugly remnants of a system of oppression. Even with the little they have, they seemed resourceful and content though. I’m not sure how it will affect you, but it made me appreciate things I sometimes take for granted!

Editor’s note

If you’re looking for hotel suggestions in Cape Town, I stayed at the stately and elegant Cullinan Hotel, approximately 25 minutes from the airport, and walking distance to the V&A Waterfront. The breakfast buffet (included in the rate) featured tasty hot and cold items that changed daily, and the pool, hotel gym and ladies cocktail bar were all hot spots. The staff was friendly and courteous too!

Planning a trip to Egypt? Here’s my 17-point guide to Cairo, Aswan, Luxor and more

When you hear the word Egypt, the pyramids of Giza are the first thing that come to mind. But there is so much more to the country than those triangular-shaped landmarks. If you’re planning a trip to that corner of the world, use one or more of these 17 activity suggestions to help build your vacation itinerary.

1. Stroll the busy streets of Cairo. There are always tons of things going on. Absorb the sights and sounds and take it all in. 

2. Go shopping at Khan al Kalilli, Egypt’s colorful and most talked about souk (market). There are no price tags anywhere. The key to a great purchase is to pretend you really don’t like what you’re hoping to buy. Waste at least 20 minutes asking about something else, check for different colors and sizes where applicable then nonchalantly zero in on your true subject. The scarves and the papyrus paintings are great finds. Market stall at the Khan al Kalilli, Egypt

3. Watch a dizzying performance of the Sufi Dancers, a traditional folk dance involving multiple spins. The term Sufi is derived from the Arabic word that means ‘to dress in wool’. Sufi Dancers, Egypt

4. Visit the famous pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, the guardian on the tomb. For a little extra you can go inside the Little Pyramid to see the burial chamber of a pharaoh. Warning: The passage is narrow and slopes down for quite a bit so expect it to be hot and a tad claustrophobic. At night, you can watch their Light and Sound Show. The pyramids of Giza, Ehypt

5. Gorge yourself at a roadside eatery. The food is good! I recommend a chicken or beef shawarma, a typical Middle Eastern fast-food snack.

Image source: Travel Channel.com
Image source: Travel Channel.com

6. Devote a couple hours to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, a place that houses many artifacts and national treasures. The exhibits were numerous, with the ostentatious possessions from Tutankhamen tomb’s taking center stage. the Egyptian Antiquities Museum

7. Get outside of Cairo and visit other regions like the charming seaside town of Aswan. A winter favorite for many tourists, Aswan boasts snore-conducive sailboats and lively floating restaurants that dot the watery channel. The Nubians are darker in hue than their Cairo counterparts so I felt quite at home. I got called “cousin” wherever I went. Aswan, Egypt

8. Sail in a felucca down the River Nile and somewhere along the way, stop at the Nubian Village and take a swim. Sailing on the River Nile, Egypt

8. Hike up a sand dune. Sand dune in Egypt

10. Ride a camel through the desert at sunset. Camel ride in the Egyptian dessert

11. Plan a day trip to see Abu Simbel, the great temples of Ramesses II. There are two sites, one for Ramesses II and a smaller temple built in honor of Nefertari, his wife. What makes this symbol of ancient Egyptian history even more fascinating is the fact that the site had to be dismantled and relocated in the 1960s to protect the temples from rising waters during the construction of the High Aswan Dam. You just gotta see it to believe it! Abu Simbel, the great temples of Ramesses II, Egypt

12. Walk through the Philae Temple, a gift to the Egyptians from the Greek built for the goddess Isis. Philae Temple, Egypt

13. Learn the art of making cane juice in a local market. Making sugar cane juice in Egypt

14. Head to Luxor to see the Karnak Temple, the largest known temple complex ever built by man. It’s made up of three main sections: Mott, Montu and Amun and it is believed to have been built and enlarged over a 1,300 year period.Karnak Temple, Egypt

15. Stop for photo ops at the Colossi of Memnon, two 75 feet/23 meters high statues of Amenhotep III that guarded a mortuary temple in Thebes. The temple is no longer there, but the giant statues give a glimpse into its majestic past. Colossi of Memnon statues in Egypt

16. Purchase tickets to tour the Valley of the Kings. The rulers from the 18th -20th Dynasty built their tombs in Thebes and instead of using the pyramid shape, they cut directly into limestone rock. There are 64 discovered tombs in the valley, but only some stay open for rotational viewing. Tutankhamen’s is perhaps the most famous as it was the only one found with everything intact. I didn’t go in as that was an extra cost and I had seen all the treasures at the Museum of Antiquities anyway. Valley of the Kings in Egypt

17. Try some Turkish coffee and smoke a shisha pipe with flavored tobacco if that’s your sort of thing.

Image Source: theguardian.com
Image Source: theguardian.com

And that’s a wrap!

Sailing the River Nile on a felucca

One of my most treasured memories of Egypt was the time I spent leisurely sailing the River Nile on a simple wooden boat that the locals call a felucca. My tour group and I boarded the fuss-free vessel in Aswan, an unimposing market town that doubles as Egypt’s southern gateway to Africa.

feluccas on the River NIle
Feluccas on the River NIle

Buoyed by gentle winds and a natural motion that was blissfully free of disruptive motor-fuelled noises, the trip was cathartic because we took our time to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

Beautiful sails of the felucca
Beautiful sails of the felucca

We got to stretch out on deck and listen to, not just reflexively hear, the gentle lapping of the water as it rocked against the side of the traditional vessel. Without any pretense, I can honestly say the one-of-kind experience was a soothing balm for my body and soul.

We played cards.

A relaxing game of cards in play along the River Nile
A relaxing game of cards in play along the River Nile

Some people absorbed the changing scenery around us..

Interesting building on the bank of the NIle
Interesting building on the bank of the Nile

Others napped.

Sleep time; one of my favorite activities. LOL.
Sleep time; one of my favorite activities. LOL.

Our napping tour guide, Clearly, he had seen it all before.
Our napping tour guide, Clearly, he had seen it all before!

 

Wise man from the Nubian village
Wise man from the Nubian village

 

 

A few listened keenly to the wise old man from the Nubian village named Hamdi, who shared his knowledge of the area’s unique history and culture in hushed and measured tones. .

And collectively, in awed unison, we watched a magnificent sunset just before we closed our eyes and spent a peaceful night under the stars.

Yes, it got chilly. And no, there was no plumbing, Wi-Fi or convenient power outlets. But the surge of feel-good juice that shot through my system while I rested under the white-sailed canopy that was designed to provide shade and protection from the elements was even more electrifying. Because it felt just right.

Unequivocally, less can be more.

Sunset forming an impressive silhoutte with majestic sails
Sunset forming an impressive silhoutte with majestic sails

 

Dune bashing and belly dancing in Dubai

Dubai is a hotbed of first-class entertainment venues and tourist attractions but surprisingly, the activity I enjoyed most during my stay was a Desert Safari tour. It included dune bashing, camel rides, dinner in a Bedouin-style camp, henna hand painting and belly dancing. If you plan to visit, you should try it.

Let the dune bashing begin!
Let the dune bashing adventure begin!

What is dune bashing?

Dune bashing means driving at increasing and decreasing speeds over sand dunes. As the surface of the sand keeps shifting, it takes a special skill and a special type of car to navigate the terrain – usually a sports utility vehicle (SUV). Expect a stop to let the air out of your tyres (tires) as reducing the pressure gives the vehicle more traction against the moving sand.

What to expect

The experience starts with pick-up at your hotel or home stay, followed by a 45 minute to an hour-long drive out of the city. As we left the outline of a built-to-impress metropolitan area behind us, the emerging desert landscape in its unapologetic sparseness acted like a soothing balm to my, at that point, over-stimulated soul.

Camels spotted on the ride out of the city
Camels spotted on the ride out of the city (Photo contributed)

There were no city noises to obscure my hearing and no towering buildings to block my view. If you are lucky, you may even spot a few camels or other wildlife along the way.

Desert Wildlife
Desert Wildlife (Photo contributed)

The dune bashing part of the trip was a bumpy and thrilling ride that lasted about an hour. We reveled in the slipping and sliding, the exhilarating skidding, and 360-degree spinning of the vehicle. All of that was punctuated by sporadic seat-gripping and different decibels of screaming and shouting. And sand, lots and lots of sand! We had a jolly good time.

The vehicles travelled in convoy and stuck close together as they performed their stunts. As a result, we were not just caught up with what was happening in our SUV, we also were observing the antics of the people in the other vehicles as well.

Dubai Sand dunes (Photo contributed)
Dubai Sand dunes (Photo contributed)

Tip: Try to secure the front passenger seat or a window for the best views!

What to wear

Dress comfortably, because inevitably the sand gets into everything. I recommend a hat or a scarf to cover your hair, and long pants and a light shirt or t-shirt. I wore sneakers and socks in an effort to cover my feet but the sand got into them anyway, so I could very well have worn sandals.

For persons who wear contact lenses, I suggest wearing shades as well because small grains of sand get into your eyes very easily when you are outside the vehicle. With no running water nearby, eye-drops alone won’t be enough to clear them.

Desert Sunset
Desert Sunset

After the drive, you are allowed to exit the vehicle, walk around and take pictures. The evening drives are timed to end just before sunset so be ready to capture some pretty cool shots then.

Dinner and belly dancing

The evening ended with a trip to a Bedouin-style camp. The Middle Eastern-influenced dinner menu included a variety of meats and salads with some desserts.

Stooping by the well
Stooping by a well

Dinner set-up
Dinner set-up

Optional camel riding, henna painting, shisha smoking and belly dancing rounded out the evening’s activities.

Henna hand painting
Henna hand painting

Belly dancer
Belly dancer (Photo contributed)

At the end of the dinner and belly dancing show, the lights were turned off for about five minutes to allow us to enjoy the magnificence of the star-filled sky..

Cost:

Plan for the AED 360.00 price range but please check various tour sites for the most up-to-date information. I did my tour with Arabian Adventures and the adult rate is a little cheaper in the summer months, from June 1- August 31st. But bear in mind you will be in the desert and it is at its hottest temperatures at that time of year.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

________________

Editor’s Notes:

No one who visits Dubai can deny that it is a visually impressive city. It boasts an ever-evolving skyline, soaring skyscrapers, superlative service and a surefire sexiness that comes with being younger and better-looking than many of its regional peers.

Impressive Dubai skyline
Impressive Dubai skyline

Oil rich reserves discovered in the mid-60s proved to be the catalyst that led to the demise of the tradtional Bedouin lifestyle. Before the boom, settlements were built around a main creek and camels were the main means of transportation.

It is nothing like that today.

The country is now a thriving metropolis designed to convey opulence; a tangible reminder of its status as a premier international financial center and an important business hub in the Middle East. There are swanky hotels, glitzy shopping centres (centers) and copious amounts of steel, glass, marble and gold almost at every corner.

Posing by an elaborate fish tank in a hotel lobby
Posing by an elaborate fish tank in a hotel lobby

Expatriates seeking employment or upward mobility are drawn to it and visitor arrival figures prove tourists can’t get enough of it – unless they are a little pesky like me. In spite of being impressed by the vision and drive behind its public systems and dramatic physical transformation; I didn’t – just couldn’t – warm up to it.

My biggest takeaway was an inescapable sense of the superficial. But admittedly, not everybody seeks authenticity in their destination experience; sometimes escape is all you need. Dubai provides that in heaping servings. I liken it to a grownup version of Disney World, or an adult land of “anything is possible” make-believe.

Lunch break
Workers on a lunch break

There are fake islands and fake snow, and elaborate food sometimes flown in on flights more long-haul than the ones the restaurant patrons themselves had to use to get there. Most of all, there were not-so-positive things that lurked beneath the glossy surface.

I could not ignore the stories I heard of the vicious cycle of pretentiousness that drives some work permit holders into debt because they are hopelessly trying to keep up with the status quo. Neither could I avoid hearing the whispers of unfair treatment of the labourers (laborers) who often are tricked into building the city on broken promises and shattered dreams.

Roadside musings
Roadside musings

It was a lot to take in, so by day two of my four-day trip, I desperately craved something real.

Thankfully, I got a taste of how non-showy life used to be when I went dune bashing in the desert and watched some belly dancing in a camp that same evening. Who would believe that I finally got my Zen in the most unmodern context possible? Yet, I did. My Dubai moment came when I sat cross-legged on a low, quilted cushion; and relished a tasty yet traditional meal.

Have you visited Dubai? What did you think?

Five reasons to visit Table Mountain in Cape Town

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. From this famous landmark, which is 3,567 feet (1087 meters) above sea level, you truly experience what it feels like to be on top of the world.

Dramatic views all around
Dramatic views all around

Below, I’ve listed five reasons why I think you should add this attraction to your to-do list.

The climb

A huge part of any journey is the anticipation involved. Some people get anxious. Others, like me, are like high-spirited horses who chomp at the bits to gallop away.  I am a keen observer of people and those differences were apparent during the five-minute cable ride to the peak.

Cable ride
Cable ride

As we took that feet-tingling ride up the mountain, you could see the fear of heights in the eyes and body language of the some people in the 65-person-at-capacity cable car. In others, especially the palms-splayed-wide-on-the plexi-glass-kids, the overarching emotion was uninhibited delight.

Going up...and up...
Going up…and up…

The hike

If you are a true adrenaline junkie, you don’t have to take the cable car. Hiking and exploring at your own pace is the way to go. There are three trails to the top of the mountain and if you choose that option, you are encouraged to complete the hike in groups.

Fearless hiker
Fearless hiker

You can trek both ways, take the cable car up and hike down, or do it the opposite way. The truth is, even if you don’t plan to hike down you might have to.  I found out AFTER I visited that daily weather conditions determine if the cable car runs, so a return ticket doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a ride down on an extra windy day. Yikes!

The view

Words fail me when I try to describe the 360-degree view from the top of Table Mountain.

The view from the top
The view from the top

While the far-away outline of the city lies below you, there also are craggy cliffs and dramatic scenery that stretch out for miles on either side.

Craggy cliffs
Craggy cliffs

It’s stunning, jaw-dropping, breath-taking, AND awe-inspiring all at the same time; a physical onslaught to the senses.

Majestic mountain range
Majestic mountain range

The flora and fauna

As part of a World Heritage Site, Table Mountain has an abundance of flora and fauna that makes it a treat for the nature lover. Reported to have more than 1,400 different species of plants, one of the most vibrant and distinctive is the yellow Fynbos, which is Afrikaan for ‘delicate bush’.

The "delicate bush". Such a vibrant yellow!
The “delicate bush”. Such a vibrant yellow!

Find a hidden cubby hole or look over a rocky edge and you also could spot frogs, tortoises and different lizards in their natural habitat. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a Tahr, an animal that closely resembles a goat.

The sunset

Last but by no means least, is the sunset.  You’ve heard the saying: a picture says a thousand words, right? In that case, let’s do this the easy way – I’ll share two thousand words with you right now.

Sunset
Sunset

Another angle
Another angle

Editor’s Note:

There is Sunset Special that runs from November 1 to December 19, and from January 8 until February 28. After 6pm, return tickets are half price.  The regular rate for an adult is R225 roundtrip and R115 one-way. Children aged four to 17 pay R11 one-way and R58 one-way.

Other things I suggest while in South Africa are:

An unforgettable visit to Robben Island

I follow a popular blogger who recently tweeted this travel tip: “You can’t understand the present if you don’t know the past. Read up on the destinations you are visiting.”

A section of the maximum security prison.
A section of the maximum security prison.

It’s a simple reminder that is extremely profound.

For that reason, I recommend that you read or listen to an audio version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “The Long Road to Freedom” if you intend to visit Robben Island when you are in Cape Town.

Will it be emotional? Yes.

Will it also be educational? Yes.

Will it add depth and texture to your experience? Oh, yes!

(For this post, I decided to share excerpts from Mr. Mandela’s recollections of Robben Island that will help to provide greater context to your visit. It enhanced mine.)

___________

AT MIDNIGHT, I was awake and staring at the ceiling–images from the trial were still rattling around in my head–when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars.

“Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for.

That is how Nelson Mandela described the night he was told he was being moved to Robben Island – the stark, cold place that robbed him, and others, of simple freedoms many of us take for granted.

On the bus tour, I found out that in its heyday the island was ‘the most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system.’ It also served as a leper colony, an animal quarantine station and a hospital before it became known as a place of banishment and terror for activists opposed to apartheid.

Leper Graveyard. Robben Island
Leper Graveyard. It shows that beautiful things can grow in even the most unfavorable conditions.

We landed on a military airstrip on one end of the island. It was a grim, overcast day, and when I stepped out of the plane, the cold winter wind whipped through our thin prison uniforms. We were met by guards with automatic weapons; the atmosphere was tense but quiet.

I was bundled up when I stepped off the ferry – in sweater and scarf with long jeans – and the brisk wind still gave me goose bumps. I can’t begin to imagine what Mr. Mandela and his colleagues must have felt when they landed that day and were stopped to be processed.

Prisoners arriving
Wall mural depicting the arrival of a batch of prisoners.

We were driven to the old jail, an isolated stone building, where we were ordered to strip while standing outside. One of the ritual indignities of prison life is that when you are transferred from one prison to another, the first thing that happens is that you change from the garb of the old prison to that of the new.

The prison was divided into two distinct areas.  There was the general prison, known as sections F and G, which contained communal cells, and a quadrangular shaped area with single cells known as sections A, B, and C. Those cells and a guard station bordered a courtyard.  Mr. Mandela was placed in cell 466 on Block B.  Each cell was outfitted with a bucket, a cup, one dish, and a blanket. There were no pajamas issued, and none of today’s basic prison necessities like bunk beds or sheets.

Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates.
Communal cell that housed up to 60 inmates. The mat on the ground is an example of what they slept on before the bunk beds arrived.

Nelson Mandela's Cell.
Nelson Mandela’s Cell.

Apartheid’s regulations extended even to clothing. All of us, except Kathy, received short trousers, an insubstantial jersey, and a canvas jacket. Kathy, the one Indian among us, was given long trousers. Normally Africans would receive sandals made from car tires, but in this instance we were given shoes. Kathy, alone, received socks. Short trousers for Africans were meant to remind us that we were “boys.”

Our tour guide, a former political prisoner himself, explained that there was differential treatment for other things as well.  Meals, for example, varied for blacks and coloreds. (Only Africans and Indians were sentenced to spend their terms on Robben Island; women and Caucasians were sent elsewhere). Persons also were placed into one of four categories: A to D. Those in groups A and B were allowed four letters per month while the Cs and Ds only got one.

Segregated Meal Charts
Segregated Meal Charts

That first week we began the work that would occupy us for the next few months. Each morning, a load of stones about the size of volleyballs was dumped by the entrance to the courtyard. Using wheelbarrows, we moved the stones to the center of the yard. We were given either four-pound hammers or fourteen-pound hammers for the larger stones.

Our job was to crush the stones into gravel. We were divided into four rows, about a yard-and-a-half apart, and sat cross-legged on the ground. We were each given a thick rubber ring, made from tires, in which to place the stones. The ring was meant to catch flying chips of stone, but hardly ever did so. We wore makeshift wire masks to protect our eyes.

Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.
Picture that captured men working in the courtyard.

The guide told us that the task gradually advanced to eight hour days spent breaking stones in a limestone quarry. Prisoners were exposed to all elements of weather, and forced to work with the most primitive of tools under the supervision of 15 guards who had dogs.  Many ended up with permanent eye damage because of the harsh glare of the sun and the ever-present stone particles.

Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela's release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.
Symbolic pile of stones erected by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honor Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, after 27 years behind bars.

On occasion, the men would relieve themselves in a small cave at the back of the quarry. It was the only place that they could escape the watchful eyes of the guards. We were told that they also carved out time to teach each other how to read and write in the dirt there.  It became known as their ‘prison university’ and ‘informal parliament’. I’ve since read that it is quite possible that a significant portion of South Africa’s current constitution was written in that cave.

The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.
The limestone quarry with small cave to the back.

Other noteworthy tidbits that I gleaned from the tour are listed below.

  • Wardens were replaced at regular intervals because some of them were swayed by the arguments
  • Prisoners in the communal cells slept on the floor and often huddled together for warmth on cold winter nights
  • Baths were allowed twice per week only; on Wednesdays and Sundays
  • Prisoners with blisters were not attended to by doctors yet they could not complain. They were forced to use every means possible, including the ammonia from their own urine, to try to achieve healing
  • Hot water and bunk beds in the communal area were not available until after increased pressure from the outside world
  • Today, only former inmates serve as guides for the prison segment of the tour

Given what you see and hear on the island, it would be easy to walk away from Robben Island a bitter, sad, or heavy-hearted individual. But thanks to Mandela’s unifying spirit, and the outlook of many of his fellow prisoners, you leave instead humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. The sign at the entrance and exit best sums up the legacy of Robben Island. It is pictured below.

A sign with a powerful message
A sign with a powerful message

Tata Mandela himself later expanded on that sentiment even more:

“While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.
Statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the prison from which he was released.

________

Editor’s Notes:

To get to Robben Island, you take a ferry from at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  Look for the Nelson Mandela Gateway that houses a museum shop, a restaurant, and a multimedia exhibition.

The boats leave on the hour between 9am-3pm, and the journey can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the weather. When you arrive on the island, you are taken on a bus tour that passes by the Lepers’ Graveyard and the tiny house where another famous political inmate, Robert Sobukwe, lived in solitary confinement for several years.  He was the only prisoner who was allowed to smoke, and he died of lung cancer at the ripe old age of 54.

You also get to see two of the oldest buildings on the island; the Irish church built in 1841, and the lighthouse that was built 25 years later.  There is also a guest house where President Clinton and his wife stayed when they visited with Mr. Mandela in the late 90s.

Of course, there is also the obligatory gift shop. Allocate about three and half hours for the complete tour.

My South African Safari

Does music ever factor into your trips? I’ve found that it has an amazing ability to transcend language and cultural differences and connect people in a memorable way.  Plus, listening to my favorite songs at the end of an exhausting yet exhilarating excursion helps me to relax and reboot for the next day.

It’s also great to have access to earphones and a playlist-ready device when you’re on a long flight or a bus tour. Because at some point, you will need to drown out that annoying traveler who either talks too much or asks the most oddball questions.

Well, I didn’t take music on this trip but the mental soundtrack for my safari adventure included all the playful and infectious songs from the Lion King. I can sense that you don’t believe me. Read on.

Thornybush
Thornybush Nature Reserve, South Africa

As my bus driver navigated the bumpy dirt road from Hoedspruit airport to the lodge, I was silently humming and snapping my fingers to Hakuna Matata (click on link for audio). I’m being serious, for the duration of that ride, I also stole glances out the window and hoped for the real-life Pumba (warthog) and Timon (meercat) to appear. SA_PHOTO_BIG 1059

Later, when I met the enamored Texan honeymooners, Craig and Kristen, at our first bonfire dinner, it was the melodic strings from Can You Feel The Love Tonight that filled the air.

Keep rolling your eyes, there’s more.

The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom
The Stately Giraffe, Runway Model in the Animal Kingdom

During my first night ride, a leopard darted in front the jeep as she whisked her cub to safety across the dirt road. The driver pulled up; and every hair on my head and arms stood up. Why? At that point, yours truly was trying valiantly to drown out the menacing bush sounds with the soaring chorus of The Circle of Life.

The Elusive Leopard.
The Elusive Leopard.

No. I am not crazy. (Okay, okay…maybe I am just a little bit nuts )

I guess you’ve figured out by now that the Lion King is the reason that I agreed to a safari adventure when my sister decided to do something really different for her birthday. On an average day, I am quite possibly the most animal-averse person on the planet.

With several countries in Africa to choose from, initially it was a bit overwhelming to decide where to go. She knew that there was no way I was going to spend more than three days in the bush, so we had to find a location with other attractions to enjoy for the rest of our 10 day trip. After reviewing our options, Robben Island, and Cape Town sealed the deal for me, so we settled on South Africa. (I’ll share some of those highlights in another post.)

The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild
The Rooms at Waterbuck Game Lodge, with a balcony looking out to the wild

We opted to go to the Thornybush Nature Reserve, which is situated on private land adjacent to Krueger National Park. Everything at our hotel, the Waterbuck Lodge – fireplace, staff, and setting – was wonderful.

En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.
En suite bathroom with perfectly private views.

Our package included two game rides per day in an open Land Rover (at dawn and dusk); breakfast coffee and sundowner cocktail stops; delicious group meals; and cozy and intimate accommodations. The maximum number of lodge guests allowed at any one time is eight.

Another bonus to choosing the private game reserve option, is that our rangers were allowed to go into the bush to track the animals. Rangers in public reserves have to stick to the roadways. It was well worth the extra dollars because those spontaneous detours yielded many of our most memorable moments.

Rhinos on the run
Rhinos on the run

Imagine dodging flaying tree limbs as your driver and tracker pulled out machetes to hack away at minor obstacles. All in a bid to get the jeep into an area where vultures hovered over the remains of fresh kill!

Or picture being left unarmed and totally helpless in an open jeep while your guides got out of the vehicle to track the lions by their footprints. Those few minutes on our own felt like hours.

L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions
L-R: Loderick (Tracker) and Gareth (Ranger) tracking the lions

We also pulled over on the side of the road to allow rhinos to get to their watering hole, and got off the beaten track to see a testosterone led turf war. PRICELESS.

SA_PHOTO_BIG 1296
Testosterone fight.

Our ranger (Gareth) and tracker (Loderick) were excellent guides. Thanks to their bush savvy and persistence, we saw all of the Big 5: lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalos… and the elusive leopard. No safari can guarantee you will see everything, so we were lucky.

Over the three days, we saw a diverse number of wildlife as well. Animal sightings included giraffes; deer; zebras; antelope, and their sub-species: kudus and impalas; monkeys; baboons; wild boars; crocodiles; water bucks; hares; and civets, among others.

There were interesting species from the feathered family too.  I remember seeing a lilac breasted roller; guinea fowl; owls; grey heron; black bellied bustards; bald eagles; a blue reeve (female in the ruff family); and ducks.

The creepy crawlers weren’t left out either. We saw centipedes, large lizards, and a chameleon change from bright to dark green as Gareth plucked him from the side of the road and placed him in the grass. IMG_2694SA_PHOTO_BIG 1194

I will end by saying that the lions, the famed and feared kings of the jungle, were a bit of a let down. When we found the pride their bellies were full, so they were content and lethargic. It was a real-life case of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Sleepy lions
Sleepy lions

Queue the drums and bass guitar here, and join me as I attempt that lovable high-pitched solo:

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh) In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight…  __________

Editor’s Notes: I visited South Africa in November 2012 when the weather was just starting to warm up. The peak of their winter is June/July. However, I have heard that for optimal visibility, the best time to plan a safari in South Africa is between May and October – their dry season.

I got my malaria tablets as a precaution, although I was told that you did not need to worry about it there – unlike in some other African destinations. I booked my trip through South African Airways Vacations and the package included domestic and international airfare, some meals, accommodation, game rides and Cape Town tours.

The beauty of any trip is that you can choose what suits your personality and pocket. Even if it means going on safari in a public park, and sleeping in a rest camp that houses tents, caravans, or forest huts – with or without private bathrooms. It’s still an adventure!

Look out for my posts on CapeTown soon.