First few Days in South Africa: Cape Town & Cape Peninsula

Here we go again – it’s time for another adventure. This time we’re doing a ten-week self-drive camper tour of South Africa.

Here’s the very approximate plan of what we intend to do:

Flying into Cape Town, we booked an apartment for three nights, then ten weeks’ vehicle hire (we’re expecting to do around 9500km in that time, so an average of around 136km / 85 miles per day) followed by one night back in Cape Town before flying home at the end of March.

We left home on Thursday 10th January; train to the airport then a flight to Heathrow followed by an overnight flight to Cape Town. Our journey was pretty uneventful apart from one minor incident whilst going through airport security in the UK. Mark’s hand luggage was pulled aside for further investigation of what turned out to be his bean bag, which he’d packed to use with the telescope he’s brought along. “OK, I’ll just have to swab that”, said the security chap. “Oh *#@*%”, thought Mark. It’s the beanbag he takes shooting, of course…. Who knows what residues they might have found? By some miracle, he got away with it. Phew!

On arrival in Cape Town, we got an Uber to our accommodation, having received a discount code for new users. Imagine, our first ever Uber! We’d used Lyft last time we went to the States, so we had a bit of an idea how it might work. Uber’s big in Cape Town and we used it a couple more times during our stay. It worked great, so much so that Mark is also planning on becoming a new customer, just in time for our return trip to the airport at the end of March…. The discount code is just the name of the company we booked our accommodation with, so it’s not specific to our booking and is unlikely to change very often.

Our apartment was well situated, within easy walking distance of the V&A Waterfront area, so after checking in around 2pm and sorting ourselves out, we headed out for a late afternoon wander. It’s very plush, a far cry from the townships (aka shanty towns) we saw on the way in from the airport. We checked out where we needed to go on Saturday morning for our trip to Robben Island. There were big signs on the doors explaining that all of Friday’s tours had been cancelled due to sea swells. It was probably a good move to have booked ahead – no doubt many of Friday’s disappointed customers will have tried to immediately rebook for Saturday…..

We got a few chores done in the large V&A Wharf shopping complex – cash, SIM cards, and food shopping being our three main requirements. Mark was quite surprised to learn that V&A does not, in fact, stand for Victoria & Albert. It’s Victoria & Alfred. The Alfred Basin, completed in 1870, was named after Victoria & Albert’s second son Alfred who visited Cape Town in 1860 (as a 16 year old midshipman in the Royal Navy). A larger outer basin, completed in 1905, was named after his mother Queen Victoria – hence the V&A Waterfront.

Back at our apartment for the evening, the weather took a very British turn……

Thankfully, Saturday was much warmer and sunnier. We acted like good tourists on the V&A Waterfront on our way to our Robben Island trip.

Thankfully, the Robben Island trips were running on Saturday morning, although as we queued to have our tickets checked, there was a sudden announcement that they would be turning 40 customers away. They’d had a technical problem with the boat that morning so were using a different boat with a smaller capacity. There was a second or two of panic before we ascertained that there were definitely more than 40 people in the queue behind us. Phew! It turned out to be a good thing to show up early….

Despite the benign weather, there was quite a swell on the crossing to Robben Island – not nice on one of those catamarans. Let’s just say that the guy handing out sick bags seemed to be doing much more trade than the on-board cafe. Even Mark, with 18 years at sea under his belt, said he noticed the effect of all that lurching around. So it perhaps wouldn’t be a good idea to book an afternoon Robben Island trip and go for a slap-up lunch beforehand!

We got a coach tour round the island which pointed out some of the key features – some buildings and a graveyard from the island’s time as a leper colony in the 1800s, later buildings from its use as a military base, the rock and lime quarries where prisoners were made to work etc. Then it was on to the prison itself, where we were given an explanatory talk and guided tour by a former political prisoner who was himself imprisoned at Robben Island as a young man in 1984. Ten former prisoners work as tour guides at the site.

Nelson Mandela’s cell, his “home” for 18 years:

The journey back to the mainland was thankfully much smoother! It was after 4pm by the time we got back, the change of boats having caused some delays, so the rest of the afternoon was spent raiding the tourist information office for any useful brochures, hunting down a bookstore for a suitably sized map of South Africa on which to mark our route, and sourcing a couple more bits and bobs in the supermarket.

On Sunday morning, we headed up to the Table Mountain cable car station. We had a coffee overlooking a nice view of Cape Town but didn’t pay to go up the cable car in the end – it seemed that all we’d see up there was the inside of a cloud!

Oh well, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for the mountain to be cloud-free when we get back to Cape Town at the end of our trip.

Mark picked out the IZIKO South African Museum as a place he’d like to visit given that we weren’t going up the cable car, so off we went.

The museum was quite dated in parts but it had plenty to interest us as newbies – lots about rock art, displays on South African dinosaurs and LOTS of stuffed South African animals and birds.

The museum sits at one end of the long thin “Company Garden” which we walked the length of back towards the V&A Waterfront. The Dutch East India Company set up a “refreshment station” here in 1652 to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to passing Dutch trading ships – so it was more of a “company allotment” than a “company garden” back then.

Then it was back through the town centre to the V&A Waterfront, dealing with our second homeless person asking for money as we went. The strategy in Cape Town seems to be to walk alongside you and hassle you for as long as it takes for you to give up and hand over some cash. They do give the impression that they’ve got all day and they’re really not going to give up. It’s very sad that people have to do that, and it’s all a far cry from the upmarket area nearby. It does make you consider getting an Uber for even the shortest distances in future…..

We checked out of our apartment first thing on Monday morning and were collected for our transfer to the motorhome depot. Then it was the usual – a mountain of paperwork to sign, a hard sell on the “Super” insurance cover that we’d already declined (I did think that the statement “the Standard Cover doesn’t cover you for ANYTHING” was overdoing it a bit; I flourished the top-up policy we’d bought elsewhere at half the cost and the guy gave up, admitting that it was part of his job to try to sell the extra insurance), and finally, a cursory handover. To be fair, the girl doing the handover was clearly quite new. She looked mightily relieved when she launched into her memorised explanation of the 4 wheel drive and Mark said “it’s OK, I drive a Hilux at home”, then again when she opened the locker door and started to explain the toilet to me and I pointed out that we have the exact same system (the new Thetford blue-cap cassette) on our motorhome back in the UK. And then we were finally on our way….. hurrah!

It’s now Wednesday evening, so this is our third day in the van. Here’s our route so far:

Overview: 3 days, 263km

Our first stop was a shopping centre at Hout Bay on the western coast of the Cape Peninsula. Our bags needed to be unpacked, we needed some lunch, and then there was grocery shopping to be done.

The van is, in motorhome hire company language, a NAVI by the way – so Mark has already christened it the NAVI-SOK. I’ll include some pics of the interior in a later post. Amazingly, everything fitted into our little home for the next ten weeks really well!

Mark then had to spend a bit of time doing some initial DIY armed with no more than some empty wine boxes we’d scrounged and a bread knife. We now have some fantastically usable kitchen storage space (motorhome hire companies really don’t seem to concern themselves with the practical details of storage!).

All sorted, we paid the small fee to do the Chapman’s Peak Drive, a scenic route which hugs the coast for a few km south of Hout Bay.

The view back toward Hout Bay from a nice picnic area:


We’d booked two nights at our first South African camp site at Miller Point, just south of Simon’s Town on the east coast of the peninsula, the aim being to stay reasonably close to Cape Town for a while to check all was well with the van before heading off further afield. Everything does seem tickety-boo, mind you it should – the van only had just over 8,000km on it from new when we picked it up. We’ve been lucky this time; our transfer driver did tell us that they’d sent out a very tired NAVI with over 170,000km on it the day before…..

On the beach by the camp site:

View of Simon’s Town from above:

On Tuesday we drove down to the national park at the tip of the Cape Peninsula:

The reason that Mark is looking so pleased with himself is that the little green card he’s waving is our “Wild Card”, which gives us free entry to all the national parks in South Africa. It cost 3830 Rand (about £219 at 17.5 Rand to the Pound) but he’s beaming as we’d just “saved” 606 Rand (£34.63) and it’s only our first day….. You know what he’s like for “savings”…..

The two main “sticky outy bits” down here are the Cape of Good Hope, which is the most southwesterly point in Africa…..

…. and Cape Point, which is altogether more dramatic-looking and has two lighthouses on it (the lower one was completed in 1919 to replace the higher one. Putting a lighthouse on top of the point must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time, but apparently it’s too often covered by mist and cloud).

Walking to the furthest viewpoint on Cape Point, Mark spied a whale:

We’re not in whale season, so this was a bit of a surprise, but hey ho…. At the viewpoint, we came across a park ranger so Mark asked about the whale – only to be told firmly that he couldn’t possibly have seen a whale! Mark concluded that he must’ve been “a gopher, not a proper park ranger”.

All I can say is that I didn’t get a great photo but it’s good enough – the camera never lies:

Mark, looking at it through binoculars, said it was definitely a rorqual whale and it had two parallel ridges running down its head – so we’re pretty confident that it was a Bryde’s whale (and having checked online, yes, they are to be found in the region….).

After a fabulous few hours wandering around the trails, we zoomed off back to Simon’s Town for a late afternoon visit to Boulders Beach. Imagine Mark’s delight when he discovered that this was also “payings”! The Wild Card was waved and – kerching – another 304 Rand (£17.37) was instantly “saved”.

The residents of the Boulders Beach penguin colony were as fabulous as you’d expect. Apparently, we are to call them African Penguins nowadays not Jackass Penguins (though I can confirm that yes, they do indeed bray like donkeys).

We also spotted a few dassies (rock hyrax, closely related to the elephant though you’d never guess from looking at them) and even a tortoise!

We left the Cape Peninsula this morning (Wednesday) and drove east around the coast of False Bay. Not a bad spot to stop for lunch:

I know we saw penguins yesterday at Boulders Beach, but there was no way we were going to drive past the Stony Point penguin colony at Betty’s Bay without stopping to take a look. There were a lot more penguins here than at Boulders Beach, and it was much much quieter.

We should point out that Stony Point is also much much cheaper than Boulders Beach – 25 Rand per person versus 152 at Boulders Beach……. Mark was upset that we couldn’t use our Wild Card here though, so we actually had to pay (if you recall, there are about 17.5 Rand to the Pound, so 25 Rand each was hardly going to break the bank).

Apparently this is one of very few places in the World where you can see four species of cormorant in one place (Crowned, Cape, Bank, and White-breasted). This kept Mark busy with his binoculars for quite a while. I think he managed two of the four.

The rocks on the beach here were riddled with dassies, including lots of young……

A dassie – penguin standoff. Mark is captioning this photo “I fart in your general direction”:

Finally, who said penguins can’t fly?

We’re now parked up for the night just a few km further up the coast at a place called Kleinmond. Although it’s officially high season until the end of January, the camp site here is almost completely deserted. We’re hoping this means we can pretty much make up our plans on the hoof (wheel?) as we continue further up the coast, rather than having to book ahead. We’ll let you know how we get on…..


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