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March 23, 2016

Mountains, Waves and Vistas of Cape Town

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Charu Khosla

Trek, walk, bike, ride, drive, climb through South Africa’s Mother City, Cape Town, to discover magnificent mountains, blue seas, colourful cultural precincts, shopping, food and so much more….

The siren song of Cape Town calls out to me, making me return to this scenic city on South Africa’s Atlantic Seaboard, near its southern tip. It is the sound of the locally named Cape Doctor (believed to clear the air of pollutants and pestilence), the dry south-easter that funnels through buildings and streets from spring to late summer, causing skirts to fly and twirl innocently around the waist. It is the sound of the music of the sea, deep-blue waters lapping on beaches of fine sand, edged with whitewashed houses flowing down undulating hillsides. It is the sound of the earliest inhabitants, their horse carts clacking down rough roads to journeys unimagined. It is the wind in the vines, roving incessantly over the indigenous habitat, the scented fynbos (‘fine-leaved bush’ in Afrikaans) that hugs the ground so possessively. It is the beauty of the country’s national flower, the king protea, that blooms in a variety of colours, encouraging fond names like ‘pincushion’.

And so I heed the call of the wind and the mountains, the sea and the faces of proud Capetonians going about their daily business and revisit South Africa’s Mother City, where it all began. The first Europeans to discover the Cape were the Portuguese with Bartolomeu Dias arriving in 1488. It was however only in 1652 that Jan van Riebeek established an outpost for the Dutch East India Company as a halfway station to provide fresh vegetables, water and meat to ships travelling to and from Asia. The original vegetable plots are today preserved in the Company’s Garden, in the city centre. Subsequently, the British and French arrived and settled in this strategic area.

Cape Town’s majestic natural surroundings cannot be ignored, making this, arguably, one of the world’s most beautifully situated cities. The iconic flat-topped Table Mountain, sometimes with its orographic clouds forming a ‘tablecloth’, seems to loom over everywhere, so that locals and visitors can chart their way with the help of this prominent landmark. This mountain is flanked by Devil’s Peak to the west and Lion’s Head to the east (when looking from the harbour), this latter a great favourite of locals who oft-times wend their way in hundreds, climbing its circular path on full-moon nights. These dramatic mountains together with Signal Hill, with its booming daily midday cannon burst, form a natural amphitheatre of the City Bowl, as the main city centre has been dubbed, and the Table Bay harbour. A drive up Signal Hill, a must-do activity surpassed only by a walk up which is even better, is rewarded by stupendous, sweeping views of the city, the harbour, the coast, the sea and the familiar silhouettes of the mountains against the changing colours of the South African sky, outlines that have become familiar friends on the horizon. On windswept evenings, this has become a place of meeting and greeting, of paths to walk, of challenges to meet and limits to move beyond.

And then there is the sea and the drive along a verdant, cliff-hung coast. Capetonians love the Atlantic Seaboard as much as their mountains and the blue waters are marked with swimmers and surfers braving the chill, even as shark spotters with their shark-spotter flags settle strategically on beaches and cliffs. Walk, hike, self-drive or bike along the coastal route below the Twelve Apostles mountain range and look down on world-class beaches, picnic areas and the bluest of blue dotted with kelp, granite outcrops and basking sea lions. Of Cape Town’s Atlantic suburbs, the wind-sheltered Clifton has some of the Cape’s most expensive homes (the wind, it would seem, dictates property prices); Camps Bay boasts a palm-lined beach, tidal pool and modern houses; while Llandudno with its white beach and inspiring sunsets presents an irresistible spectacle.

For decades a part of apartheid-era South Africa, Cape Town today is a coveted tourist destination, waiting to be discovered. And yet, it cannot deny its past. Over on the far horizon, the view from Table Mountain includes Robben Island where Nelson Mandela, the former President of the Republic of South Africa, was incarcerated. ‘We often looked across Table Bay at the magnificent silhouette of Table Mountain,’ he once said in a speech. ‘To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return.’

Cape Town continues to renew and reinvent itself and invites the world to visit and take part in its ongoing drama.

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