On our extended two-month photography safari in South Africa we chose to start in the beautiful city of Cape Town and travel the south coast to visit eight national parks along the way. We chose Cape Town first because of its well-deserved reputation as a beautiful, safe, relaxing city that would give us a chance to recover from our jet lag and acclimate to the country.
Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Cape Town - beautiful cities on splendid waterfronts and tourist destinations not to be missed. Our two-month visit to South Africa in the spring of 2017 started in Cape Town, moved east along the south coast, inland into the mountains, and back through wine country returning to Cape Town. Along this first month's travel we visited eight of South Africa's national parks. I will cover the parks in the next post but, in this episode, I will discuss some of the joys of the city on the Cape.
We arrived after 30+ hours in airports and planes from Jackson, Wyoming to Salt Lake City, to Dallas, to Doha, Qatar, Johannesburg and finally to Cape Town. We had chosen a small hotel in the heart of the city on Green Market Square. The central location let us walk to almost all of the downtown and water front sites, local markets, and wonderful restaurants. Long Street is a popular nightlife area with clubs and restaurants. It is a busy street and generally a safe route to the wharf area.
The outstanding land mark of Cape Town is Table Mountain and its national park. At more than 3,500 feet Table Mountain is a respite from hot weather in the city and is easily accessible by tramway or by any of several hiking trails. If you take the tram to the top there are several other trails to sites around the plateau with breathtaking views of the city and Atlantic. The park offers free guided tours near the top of the tram or you can take off on your own. You need a hat, sun screen and water as there is almost no shade on the mountain.
Near Green Market Square you can find the Free Walking Tour company. These young people will show you around any of 4 tours and enlighten you with the history of the Cape and South Africa. A nice tip makes them happy and will enrich your understanding of the region and its peoples. The heart of the Square is its market where you will find dozens of vendors setting up their canvas shops at 6 AM and always ready to negotiate a fair price for their wares. There is a variety of African art and crafts and enough colorful items to keep a photographer busy for days.
Another great way to see the city is by the Hop-on - Hop off bus tours available on two lines around the city. You can catch the bus on Long Street and ride to any stop, see the sites, and hop on the next bus. The tours are informative and not only take you through the heart of the city but also to the environs, beaches, and outlying towns.
After Table Mountain the number one tourist destination in Cape Town is the Victoria and Alfred waterfront. And yes it is Alfred, Victoria's son, and not Albert, her husband, after whom the water front development was named. Here you will find some of the best shopping and restaurants in Cape Town proper. The water front is accessible by walking up Long Street to the wharf, by Uber or taxi, or the Hop on bus. The photo opportunities are unlimited with the historic clock tower, the giant Ferris wheel, the crowds of visitors, and the boat and ship traffic. Close to the water front is the Chavonnes Battery, the Two Oceans Aquarium, and the boat trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. Six miles by ferry from the city, Robben Island is a "must see" spot where you will get a guided tour hosted by prisoners who served with Mandela - it is an emotional site of great importance to the South African people. You will need advance tickets available on-line or at the Clock Tower museum.
Another photographic hot spot is the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in the hillsides on the southeast of Table Mountain. You will need a cab or the Hop on bus to get there and it makes a nice stop on an all day Hop on tour. The gardens are expansive with wonderful walking trails through out. Since we were there in the early autumn, we didn't see much in bloom but the tranquil atmosphere made for a lovely long walk.
Beach parks, the Company Gardens, the Christiaan Barnard Medical museum, Castle of Good Hope museum, the Bo-Kaap Muslim section with its colorful homes, historic churches, the Parliament buildings, apartheid District Six, and the list goes on and on of tremendous photo ops for the city photographer. I am hardly a city photographer and we only scratched the surface of the city with only 6 days to visit. It was time to head to the coast.
There are so many "not to miss" photography destinations along the south coast that they are hard to describe. In this post I will not detail all of the amazing national parks but touch on some of the interesting non-park destinations to visit.
Our first stop to decompress after the time in the city was the town of Llandudno. The town itself is very small with spectacular "James Bond" homes set in the cliffs. There are no restaurants but are some nice B&Bs. The town is home to some of the most pristine beaches on the Atlantic coast and the only "clothing optional" beach in SA. Of course it rained the day we visited (only rainy day for the month on the coast!)
Heading farther south takes you to the Cape of Good Hope and the amazing Cape Point national park. There are hiking trails, wildlife, fur seals, two light houses, historic buildings and monuments but more about these in the next post. A good place for lodging is Simon's Town - very touristy and far too many tour buses but good lodging and restaurants and the home to a large rookery of African (jackass) penguins in Boulder Bay. For a small fee you can walk among the birds and photograph their comedic behaviors. Farther along the coast is Betty's Bay and the home of a much larger colony of penguins and far fewer tourists. The drive on R-44 from Gordon's Bay to Betty's Bay is described as the most beautiful scenic coastal drive in SA.
We continued along the coast on R-43 from Hermanus to Cape Agulhas national park and the southernmost point in Africa and the meeting of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. More about the park next time. There are hiking trails, waterfalls, and spectacular views along the entire southern coast that will keep photographers burning through memory cards. From here you will have to detour inland through agricultural areas and on to the N-2 highway to Mossel Bay. Along the way are turn-offs to small parks and remote sites of interest. Eventually you drive through the city of George and back to the coast and to the delightful town of Wilderness. We stayed at the funky and friendly Inn-2-Wilderness a place where there is nothing to do but chill out.
Continuing east there are nature reserves and near Knysna the famous "Knysna Heads," a small elephant sanctuary and more parks. A delightful place to stay a couple of days is Plattenburg Bay. Near here are a variety of wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers that let you get very close to "not so wild" animals and learn about their behaviors before starting your own safaris in the parks. We enjoyed the Tenikwa Wildlife and Rehabilitation Center. The center lets you get (with a guide) up close to almost all of the feline species in Africa and several other smaller animals and birds. It is a thrill to be inches away from a Leopard (through a fence) and to walk with guides among cheetahs - no fence - only 6 feet away from you. In the same region are reptile and primate parks that we did not visit. The nearby Robberg Nature Reserve is worth a visit. There are hiking trails with great views, fur seals, and birds to peak your photographic interests.
The drive just keeps getting better as you approach the Garden Route and Tsitsikamma national parks. These parks are destinations for South African visitors who spend weeks there. More about the parks in the next segment.
We continues east through more agricultural areas toward Port Elizabeth (a large industrial port city) and then north to Addo Elephant National Park and our first self-guided game drives. You really don't want to miss Addo it is truly spectacular in its wildlife diversity in such a small park. Expect to need 2 -3 days there but more in the parks segment.
After Addo we took a (very) long detour north to Beaufort West and Karoo National Park. This is like being on a different planet from the south coast and gives you great access to a drive back west through the mountains and canyons, several more nature reserves, and finally to the Stellenbosch wine producing region less than an hour from Cape Town.
Our circle drive from Cape Town along the coast and back through the mountains took us through more than 2,500 kilometers of scenic beauty in about 4 weeks. We actually did feel a bit rushed and could have used at least another week. The B&Bs are often spectacular and luxurious respites from the wilds of the bush and photo opportunities are abundant.
In the next segment I will overview the 8 national parks in this region before heading northeast to the granddaddy of all African national parks, Kruger.