In the shadows of Table Mountain and next to the swirling seas, Cape Town’s location is something to behold. Housing bends around the arc shaped coastline, and polished buildings suddenly rise in the business districts around the port.
Approaching the city from the airport offers a quick understanding of the city’s blend of rich and poor. First sights are the townships; mini-cities of simple houses, primarily constructed from tin and wood, clustered compactly together and dissected by dirt roads. Next door are the fenced communities of recently built brick homes, each uniformly built in sets of three. Moving closer in, the varying neighbourhoods collide before finally reaching the buzzing centre with wide roads and the elegant waterfront.
The city is still tainted with its history of exclusion and separation. Even the earliest Dutch settlers excluded the Khoikhoi tribes from the nearby land, and Cape Town remained as a town of focussed segregation until the Apartheid was lifted in 1991. The country’s turbulent history is remembered in many museums, as well as painted across the city through huge colourful murals.
Although the segregation is no longer by law, a huge wealth gap remains, and it is openly visible at almost every street corner. The dangers of the city remain, and are frequently muttered in warning to those new to the city. Other than my own apprehensive sense of tension, it seemed to be a friendly place when walking around. Days could easily be filled by visiting the city’s landmarks, from the colonial Castle of Good Hope to the many museums concerning events around the Apartheid.
Unless you’ve positioned yourself firmly within the high-flying business district, you’re always in view of Table Mountain, whose wall wraps around much of Cape Town. It is both a stunning, and an extremely aptly named mountain, due to its rectangular shape and flat top. On the morning of the one day of fair weather we had, I fortunately met an American woman called Chloe who was equally keen to walk to the slab summit.
The top of the mountain is made up of many layers of hard sandstone resting upon solid granite. It owes its flatness to the fact that it once was surprisingly at the bottom of the valley, although the surrounding walls made of softer material slowly weathered away, leaving the hardened rock of Table Mountain exposed. We took the Indian Venster route, which has plenty of signs demanding only experienced climbers, but other than a few steep scrambles, was perfectly comfortable. Rather than climbing through the gorge which is the most common route, it followed the wall of the mountain around, with the path suddenly inclining upwards whenever the mountain would permit. The views of the Cape and nearby mountains were continuous and well worth the trek.
We luckily reached the top without any bad weather forming around us. Frequently the top of the mountain is draped with thin cloud when a south-easterly wind creeps up the mountainside and then condense in the colder high-altitude air, and is known as “Table cloth”. The Table cloth is associated with the legend of a smoking contest that occurs between a local pirate called Van Hunks and the Devil. When the Table cloth appears, the contest is at hand.
Although I wouldn’t have a chance to see some of South Africa’s other wild scenery, I booked a 26 hour train between Cape Town and Johannesburg that traversed through the heart of the country, and would hopefully offer me a glimpse of the rugged lands.
My final planned night in Cape Town involved a spontaneous heavy drinking session after heading out with a Dutchman and an American who were keenly attempting to hunt down a darts board in the city. We didn’t find a darts board, but we did find some of the city’s most hazy establishments, resulting in a wobbly return to the hostel at 7am. My 8am alarm failed to nudge my unconscious body into action, and I woke several hours after my train had left. Another day in Cape Town, and a severe hangover to boot. And a last minute flight booking to Johannesburg the next day.
I finally landed at Johannesburg’s second and smaller airport the following day. My taxi drove through the subdued neighbourhoods towards the centre, whose towering skyscrapers can be seen from miles away. The streets are quiet further out, although there is always a gang of street sellers guarding each set of traffic lights with fruit or gimmicky items on display to passers by. From block to block, the city transformed constantly. One square we passed was full of hundreds of homeless, either huddled together or lethargically smashing larger pieces of rubbish with bricks. Presumably trying to extract valuable materials to trade or sell.
In much of South America, I would approach the safety of the city based on my personal backpack rule. If locals were wearing their backpack on their back (Santiago, Cusco etc.), then I considered it a safer place than those where they were predominantly worn under the individual’s nose on their front (Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo etc.) But in most parts of the Johannesburg, looking for backpacks wasn’t required. It was a visibly dangerous place in the majority of streets I saw.
I was staying in the neighbourhood Maboneng, where at the end of the Apartheid, like much of inner-city Johannesburg, was a no-go zone. A wave of crime flooded much of the city as uncertainty of South Africa’s future rose. A decade later, the abandoned warehouses of Maboneng suddenly became an audacious opportunity for developers who were looking to replicate the urban renewal of industrial areas of other capitals around the world. It seems now to have paid off, with art and culture dominating where crime had once ruled. Large sculptures fill the streets and connecting pathways, and 20m murals are painted on building walls.
You don’t have to wander far to find the grimy concrete mess of Johannesburg once again, but our street was in its own world, most due to the stoic security bodies who remained on the street 24 hours a day. Maboneng is clearly important enough to preserve in hope that the rest of the city might follow suit one day.
Slowly over my short time in Johannesburg, I warmed to the city. Through all it had been through, this explosive hub is still the commercial capital of Africa. The predominantly youthful population are all trying to make something happen, and no doubt the city has a brighter future.